Dandelions, Digital Literacy and Development

Dandelions, Digital Literacy and Development

Contributed by: HD

I recently attended an event held by Dawson’s, which featured three talks I really enjoyed, the first by Ben Showers (@benshowers), programme manager with JISC. In A Presentation on the First Stage Findings of the Library Management System Programme, he discussed the three ages of library systems (the stand alone age, the age of integration, and the age of contingency) and the evolution of the LMS from back office tool to something which is presently more integrated, a product of collaborative effort, and moving towards an age of the continually evolving LMS, a product that will be being born of what Ben Showers described as a ‘dance between user and system’.

Ben Showers spoke of how user expectations are being shaped by sites like Facebook and Twitter, and how in choosing a LMS we will need to be aware of these expectations, to be open to enhancing our LMS through being a part of knowledge communities, making use of things like crowd sourcing, and to accept that the LMS is never complete and is on a path of continual change. I felt rather excited by the prospect of the third age with its focus on community based knowledge and crowd-sourced data, as open and collaborative endeavours can lead to some truly amazing things (Linux immediately springs to mind).

We might not be able to get the perfect product (has there ever been such a thing?), but between us we may be able to use the tools and skills at our collective disposal to collaboratively build something that suits our needs (the open-source ILS Koha might have been mentioned…). A lot of this will probably depend on open data and Ben Showers suggested that we ought to let go of data the way dandelions let go of their seeds (as inspired by Cory Doctorow). Data should be set free, allowed to settle or die wherever it lands and similarly allowed to flourish and prosper should it land on fertile ground. Let data be promiscuous, was the well-received advice.

The next talk was by University of Greenwich’s Mark Kerrigan (@MarkKerrigan), entitled How Digitally Literate are Students? He spoke about how students might have digital skills, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are digitally literate. He also asked whether institutions make assumptions about levels of digital literacy and make decisions based on these assumptions, suggesting that, in order to develop the student, the academic institution must look at what resources it has, the needs of the student, and how the resources meet those needs.

Mark Kerrigan illustrated the differences between student needs by describing four types of students. The digitally immersed student is at one with her digital environment. The adaptive student is capable and skilled, if not fully engaged. The digitally fixed student is good at what she knows, but won’t engage further than necessary. The detached student is, well, detached, not seeing the potential benefits of digital skills. Mark Kerrigan suggested that students should be guided towards being adaptive and that there is a need to align the teaching of digital literacy to the student’s journey which starts on entering an institution and ends with leaving prepared for working in a professional environment.

It occurs to me that the library can play a vital role in facilitating a service user becoming more adaptive (the library having a role in anything is great news, even if it’s The Da Vinci Code), but before we can start helping service users with digital literacy, are we adaptive enough to keep up with the changing nature and demands of our work? Do the institutions for whom we work do enough to facilitate our development to keep in sync with ongoing changes? People working in libraries/information environments have different levels of digital literacy and this is something we need to be aware of in terms of the services we provide and our own professional development (but mostly in terms of being able to talk to people in IT without wanting to catapult ourselves out of a window).

Finally, the keynote speaker at the event was Annie Mauger (@anniemauger), CEO of CILIP. Her talk was on Inspiring Information Professionals: a bright future in a digital world.  She spoke of the difficulty of working in austere times with cut budgets and loss of staff, with fewer people doing more work. She emphasised that it’s important to recognise our own value, though we may feel devalued at times, and also to continue developing professionally. She spoke of how information professionals need to be responsive to a changing environment. If technology is changing our role, then we must look at how to adapt to those changes.

Annie Mauger mentioned a quotation I really liked by Wayne Wiegand, who said, “Rather than the user in the life of the library, think about the library in the life of the user”. She asked whether the physical library really is about what is held there, or whether it’s about the purpose for which the patron wants to use it. Annie Mauger also stressed that universities especially need libraries to be physically at the heart of their institution, so students can see them and make use of them. After all, if our libraries are going to be hidden away like secrets, it doesn’t do much for the visibility of the people working in them or the services on offer.

During this talk I really felt that the library doesn’t have to be a dying institution at all (as someone once kindly described it to me, oblivious to the fact that libraries have been dying for quite a while now). Library spaces aren’t just about collections in the same way those who work in libraries don’t just deal with books. Libraries offer space for peace, privacy and quiet. The people working in libraries connect the user to the useful. If libraries are truly built to be cultural and educational hubs, places where you can access a variety of resources, activities and space, they can find new life in an age where space, quiet and privacy are becoming ever elusive.

I came away from this talk feeling that the library’s image needs to be recast into something visibly in sync with a changing information environment. This means not shoving libraries away into invisible nooks, but showcasing them and their staff as places and people who can offer traditional services, as well as help bridge the digital divide. Let’s market ourselves better and make it easier for people to find us, to join up, to ask for our help and just generally offer them the ease of connecting with us.

There’s a lot happening on the digital landscape which is having an impact on traditional librarianship. Maybe the library profession seems dusty and oaken in comparison to the dynamism of new technology, but here’s the thing, information is for use. Every user has his or her information need. Every bit or byte of information has its user. We can mediate that space between user and information, saving the time of the user. The digital environment is a growing organism in which we can still play a role developing technologies and strategies, educating users to become more digitally literate, and continuing to guide people in their search for information.